lichtenstein's indian territory - richard there are few facets of roy lichtenstein's pop art...

Lichtenstein's Indian Territory - Richard There are few facets of Roy Lichtenstein's Pop art production
Lichtenstein's Indian Territory - Richard There are few facets of Roy Lichtenstein's Pop art production
Lichtenstein's Indian Territory - Richard There are few facets of Roy Lichtenstein's Pop art production
Lichtenstein's Indian Territory - Richard There are few facets of Roy Lichtenstein's Pop art production
Download Lichtenstein's Indian Territory - Richard There are few facets of Roy Lichtenstein's Pop art production

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  • Lichtenstein's Indian

    Territory Linking two bodies oj painting based on Native-American subjects and moti/s,

    and supplementing them with historical objects, a traveling exhibition explores a little-Imown

    aspect oj Roy Lichlenstein~ career.


    T here are few facets of Roy Lichtenstein's Pop art production that have not been extensively exhibited and thoroughly explored critically. One important body of work from his middle Pop period, however, has thus fa r had little exposure. Between 1979 and 1981, Lichtenstein produced It group of paintings, drawings and prints, plus a sculpture and It large tapestry, based on American Indian motifs. These works dovetail stylistically with the larger body of Surrealist· inspired work executed in 1977-79. The American Indian series, while a relatively small part of Lichtenstein's Pop output, is distinguished by its clear and dired relation to the anist's pre-Pop oeuvre, l Lichtenstein was not given to mulling o\'cr the past. Once he'd hit upon his Pop style, he paid little attention to his early work and, when questioned about h, tended to be vague. But scholarship, panicularly on major artists, pushes on. I n recent years critical and, one would imagine, commercial interest , combined with the forceful ad\ucacy of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, has made that previously neglected work increasingly visible.

    The first ten or so years of Lichtenstein's professional life could be characterized as a young artist's search for style and subject maUer. The work that he produced in Lhe '50s, although indebted to the art of others, does speak with a \'oice of its own. Lichtenstein's gestural Abstract Expressionism of the lale '50s is punchy and bold, while the lesser·known and more reticent School of Paris Cubism of the earlier years of the decade is formally well·wrought, and possesses consider· able charm. The latter also carries with it the conceptual seeds of his Pop work, particularly in its use of the reproduced image as subject mailer. A recurring theme from that earl)' period is the American Indian. Gail Stavitsky and '{\oiig Johnson, curators at the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey, worked closely with the Roy Lichtenstein f'oundation to present a small, lively show titled "Roy Lichtenstein: American Indian Encounters." The exhibition features paintings, drawings, mixed· medium pieces, prints and wooden sculptures from

    Art in America

  • The Last or the Burralo II, ca. J95Z, 011 on wnr.lQ, SO bll .'lltcllu. Prlr flte m/l«tlotl .

    the '50si the Pop American Indian WOrki printed source material from I,\chtenstein's library; plus a sampling of historical objects from the museum's own impressh'e American Indian collection.

    T he Indian has long occupit-d an important yet equr.'OCai place in Ihls Ilation's j:l1)')'Chc. A member of a nOIl· ~~uropean , nonindustrialized and dcmcinated culture, he WlI.., seen as victim and victimizer, lhe noble savage a.nd the degraded one, the tragic figure and the buffoon. Unlike some other colonized indigenous groUI)S-lhe Australian Aboriginal, for exampJ - American Indians (or representations of them) have remained highly visible in their nalr.'e land. We see the Indian in place, product and organWiUon ~ in a v.uiety of popular entertainment ronTIS:. and also In the child's .... ,orld of oowbol'l! and Indians, summer camps and wood lore. In the 19th and early 20th cenluries, the Indian figured prominently in the academic history paintings and genre sculJltures that shoY.lld up so often in popular book.

  • aggressively patterned head of a Plains Indian seen in profile. These are me works that seem most to foretell the later American Indian paintings, and a comparison of the two earlier pieces with the rrontaJ, forcefully patterned, and angular Head with Braids (1979) I'e\-eals considerable similarities.

    Pai nting subjects rrom American history enabled Lichtenstein to engage with impor- tant and dlslinctly American Lhemes (there was much talk In the '50s of "the Great Ameri- can NO\'el" and similar projects). Given the sources he chose, however, he hart:lly seems to ha\'e intended taking the matter too seri- ously, and his irony enabled him to a\'Oid the trap or Regionalism-an especially dangerous association for a forward-thinking artist living in the Midwest. In any case, Lichtenstein's most Important early influences were Mir6, Klce and, abo\'e all, Picasso. Those three art- Ists (although Picasso much less often) mixed whimsy and humor with inno\'atlon and for- mal flair, Their ability to combine serious- Iless of purpose with lightness of touch clearly appealed to Lichtenstein, for this .... 'as a goal he pursued throughout his career,

    T he Am eri can Indian series fr om the late '70s can be seen as part of Lichten- stein's longstanding project of appropriati ng prior ar(..-Or more to the point., its ramlliar image-and turning it into something that bore his own stylistic stamp. That he could so easily do this reflected the prior dilulion of his subject matter by repeated relJroduction. The early Pop appropriations (the "Non-objeclh-e" paintings, for exam ple) are compositionally straightforward. Ncm-objective I and /I (both 1064) look like Mondrians in their color and composilion. The main difference lies in the substitution of benday-dot passages for solid color areas. In the later '70s, possibly prompt-

    II fad 1rllh Braids, 1918, 011 and AlaI/no on rom'lU, 50 bl/.O /"chu. Prloot~ co/J~dlo".

    ~, It. \\lnnfbago, co. 19S6, 011611 COllr.m, ,. bll11 inC"~I/. PrlrlJt~ colkct16".

    ed by the slJatial dislocations so common in Surrealism, his model at the time, Lichtenstein took a new compositional approach, pulling his subject matter apart and reconstituting it in a jangly, collage- like way. This is seen to excellent effect in the large-scale paintings Ha::zmalazz (1978) and Gofor Baroque (1970). llis IJatterned In-fills were no longer simply dots, but could also be parallel diagonal lines, or an exaggerated faux wood grain. llis palette expanded as well. In addition to the usual primaries plus black and white and the occa· slonal grass green, Lichtenstein added pastel tones and sometimes meta1l1c colors. The American Indian series regularly employs a range or s ..... eetly annoying buttercull yellows, seafoam greens and grayed· out pale blues, often juxtaposed with more fully saLUrated tones or the same hue. This color IJlacement Is quite capable or setting your teeth on edge. In Ammnd Composilio1l /I (1979), for example, the

    Art j" America 145

    l 1

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  • American Indian motifs appealed to Lichtenstein not only for their mix of popular and userious" art, but also for their strongly graphic nature.

    U. ,/,kd, ca. 1955, ttum .... , nod, '(:ITtt', cUId ",Lrtt/ med/"m. , Ui'! bJf .u~ /,.tlln . PrlNlt~ ",'kelloll.

    dominant color is thai Ingratiating light yellow, but scattered through the painting are small passages of bright golden cadmium. It hurts to see U,em together. I am certain that Lichlenstei n, with his sly sense of disruption, was aware of lhis chromatic discordance and enjoyed play- ing with it.

    The collage sensibility refl ected in these works is evident not just in their composition, but in the artist's 31lproach to their subject malter. If it saicl "'ndian" to Lichtenstein, it was usable. MOIUS were pulled out of context, simplified, stylized and abstracted. Materials drawn from widely separated tribal groupings (C\'CII from different conlinents) and from different physical sources were mixed in single paintings and knit together by Lichtenstein's considerable formal skills, While it might seem less than re\'erem to throw together images from Sout h· western I)()Uery and Permian textiles, along with bear paws, smol:e from a camllfire or smoke signals, lightning bolts and arrow forms, as he does in II/dian. COml)Osit ioll (1 970), this sort of cheeky altitude lies at the heart of Lichtenstein's enterprise,

    It would be reasonable to assume that American Indian motifs 3P1)Caled to Lichtenstein not just for their mix of popular culture and ~serious art" but also for their formal interest. Their strongly graphic nature made a good fit with his own bold style. That many of those forms were drawn from ornamentation inscribed on t.h ree-dimen.~ lonal objects made it easier to treat them as mallcable entities not subject 10 the strictu res of conventional painting organization. Lichtenstein was thus able to extract elements from thei r original context and effectivcly position them in the cum]Jlex compositions he was con· strucLing at the lime, lie seemed to erijoy the challenge of ~ Iough" compositions-pulling something orr that didn't want to sit easily. CompQSifwn with 11,;0 Figll res (1970) is a good example of Ihat. The

    146 Allrit !()()(j

    painting uses forms from the Acoma and Zuni Pueblos of New Mexico. These forms were reproduced in a [)m'er book tha~ Lichtenstein had in his library. The book itself is included in the exhibition, as is a Zuni pot , ca. 1880, ..... ith the "rain bird~ motif that he adapted fo r the remale figure on the left. The male figure on the right- a jagged-edged wood· grained reclangle topped with feathers-visually tussles with the white, curving female figure, while the blocky diagonal elements Ihal occupy much of Ihe rest of the painting steadrastIy resist pictorial integration. The painting teeters on the edge of instability and garish- ness (as do many in this series) but somehow stays intact. It is all the more interesting for the disequilibrium.

    I t is temp